The ‘Désilets Wireless Organ’. Georges Désilets, Canada, 1914.

A one-octave early Prototype of the Wireless Organ
A one-octave early Prototype of the Wireless Organ

Désilets “Wireless Organ’ was a unique instrument that was designed to create and transmit musical tones generated by electronic sparks. Désilets, the bishop of the small town of Nicolet in Quebec, Canada, had set up his own radio station to transmit religious music and required an organ to complete his choir. Using the standard, pre vacuum tube process of generating radio waves with a spark-gap alternator; Désilets mounted a series of spark-gap ‘studded’ disks on a rotating conical drum spinning at a fixed rate powered by an electrical motor . The ratio interval between the studs caused an approximate sinusoidal waveform to be created in a series of predetermined musical pitches. The instrument was designed to be audible over a wireless transmission – this being, in these pre-amplification days, the only way the instrument could be heard;

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Patent diagram showing the arrangement of ‘spark studs’ on a conical drum connected to a radio transmitter.

The first version of the instrument was a  had a short drum that delivered a 1 1/2 octave range, Désilets later attached a 4 octave touch sensitive organ keyboard to a much longer spark-drum and attached a foot controlled rheostat to allow expression control. To produce higher and lower octaves (without the complexity and scale of creating a longer spark-drum) the motor speed could be varied to double or half the speed to deliver the required pitch change. Semitones were achieved by a gearing mechanism:

“…semitones are obtained in the preferred form by a set of rows exactly corresponding to the rows 27 30, 36, 40 and 45 traveling at a rate -of speed 1/20 less than the rotor 1. For example, if the rotor 1 is revolving at 500 r. p. m.,.the semitone rows must revolve at 47 5 r. p. m. The different speeds of rotation may be obtained by gearing”

Front view of the Wireless Organ
Front view of the Wireless Organ showing organ style manual and expression foot pedal.

The instrument was capable of playing polyphonically if the input charge was boosted to allow multiple spark generation:

“…Obviously, in order to produce chords, it is only necessary to supply a current of sufficient intensity to permit of a plurality of different sets of sparks at the same time consequent upon the pressure of the corresponding number of keys.”

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Motor shaft and spar studs of the Wirless Organ

Désilets radio station was closed during the 19-14-18 war – the Canadian government closed all non-military radio stations for security reasons –and his wave-organ silenced. When the station reopened, the invention and popularity of the vacuum tube by Lee De Forest and others had made his spark-generating experiments obsolete.

“Those who have heard it agree that it is real music. Chords are produced by pressing two or three keys, and if the feeding transformer can supply the necessary power we have surprising results and pleasant effects. Obviously a more elaborate machine, constructed on the lines suggested, would give even better effects. Unhappily my station was closed las year on account of the war, and my organ is now silent. I hope to resume my experiments later on; meanwhile, I wish I could, for a time, live on the free soil of the United States, paradise of the wireless amateur.”

Georges Désilets. The Wireless Age Magazine. USA, September 1916

Biographical notes

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Georges Désilets was born in Nicolet, Quebec, Canada on November 29, 1866, the son of  Isaiah Désilets, farmer and Léocadie Belcourt. After studying classics and theology at the Seminaire de Nicolet (1880-1888), he was ordained as a priest on July 26, 1893.

Désilets began teaching at the seminary as a professor of physics, chemistry and astronomy (1893-1897) and then from 1900 to 1904  natural history and music. Désilets was then appointed chaplain of the ‘Hospital Sisters of St. Joseph’ in Arthabaska, Quebec, which he left four years later due to health problems.

Désilets became the resident Bishop of Nicolet, where he had his own amateur radio laboratory installed in the turret of the bishopric building. he created the radio station ‘9 AB’ which broadcast music for an hour every week performed by the orchestra of the Nicolet Seminary “Quartet 9-AB”.

In 1914, Désilets began experimenting with a way of creating musical tones using electronic sparks which led to the design of the ‘Wireless Organ’. He was also responsible for a number of patents in the field of wireless communications.

Father Desilets died in hospital of Christ the King of Nicolet, on 29 June 1954 at the age of 88. Buried in the cemetery of the Major Seminary.


Sources:

The archives of the Seminaire Nicolet.  https://archivesseminairenicolet.wordpress.com/2013/05/09/fonds-georges-desilets/

‘Radio Amateur News’. (Magazine) June 1920 Vol 673. USA.

Archives of ‘Phonothèque québécoise / Musée du son’

‘Histoire de la radio au Québec: information, éducation, culture’. Pierre Pagé. Les Editions Fides, 2007

Wireless age; an illustrated monthly magazine … v.3 (1915-16).